Rev. Joseph Ben-David, interviewed by Ivana Edwards

Ivana Edwards: In his book Disturbing The Peace, Vaclav Havel writes: There are some things that I have felt since childhood: that there is a great mystery above me which is the focus of all meaning and the highest moral authority; that the event called the 'world' has a deeper order and meaning, and therefore is more than just a cluster of improbable accidents; that in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world that I know; and that in everything that I do I touch eternity in a strange way." These words remind me of Unitarian Universalist ideas. I often hear them in UU churches. Is Havel a Unitarian?

Rev. Joseph Ben-David: To the extent to which Havel identifies with the thoughts of the four United States presidents, Jefferson, Adams, Taft, Fillmore, and many other Unitarian philosophers, religious thinkers and human rights activists, he finds himself in the company of distinguished peers. So did Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, who also adhered to a similar ethical, socio-religious philosophy. Unitarianism assumes a life stance that aspires to the actualization of the most precious spiritual and existential values and, in Czechoslovakia, emphasizes the concept "sub specie aeternitatis," i.e., life viewed from the vantage point of eternity. In this context one person sees oneself with a sense of humility, as a bearer of a personal humanistic mission in a transcendental sense. Here Havel comes very close to Unitarian thought.

IE: What do you see as the greatest challenge we face?

JBD:We always have two options. We can choose to live a deficient, false life, submitting to dictators, shirking responsibility, remaining prisoners of our self-imposed limitations and succumbing to blind fate. Or, we can choose to live an authentic life emphasizing higher stages of individuality, community, human dignity, and fullness of experience. This is not a material problem but a spiritual and mental problem. It cannot therefore be solved through exclusively economic or mechanistic means. It was the greatness of Havel that he did not compromise his life and principles. With all his intelligence, his physical and moral power, he resisted the absurdity and unbearable constraints of his time.

IE: What the world needs most then is a spiritual renewal. But how can it be concretely achieved?

JBD: We are talking here about mental, internal processes, and today we know much about these. Human beings no longer have to live like predators, predestined to kill each other for the sake of survival. Through the development of true humanity, and through a fusion of reason, feeling and spirituality, it is possible to transcend lower levels of nature and introduce new natural elements leading to the emergence of a society free of aggression and self-defeating attitudes. Another characteristic element of the Czech Unitarians is a deep belief in what Havel calls "living in truth." Such truth is never an orthodox authoritarian dogma. Speaking, loving and searching for the truth, particularly in the face of powerful, humanly destructive adversaries assumes a concrete transformatory and redeeming dimension. And this includes the validation and application of advanced scientific means and methods.

IE: And I would add respect for the interdependence of all being. F. Forrester Church, the well-known American Unitarian leader, has said: "The new realists know that our survival today depends on our neighbor's survival. We cannot thrive unless our neighbor thrives. In the nuclear age where global war is murder-suicide or geocide, the only way to win is not to war with one another." Would you care to comment?

JBD: I see the central idea underlying this concept as the phenomenon of unitary pluralism. It is not simply a generalized expression of unity. After all, the worst dictators always used the relativistic slogan of unity in their demagogic pursuits.

IE: What does unitary pluralism actually mean?

JBD: I will mention only one of its aspects. Among the great Czech minds, from Hus, Chelcicky, Comenius, Kollar, Masaryk and today Havel, all were aware that love of one's own country is valuable only in its universal meaning. This idea is deeply ingrained in the philosophical tradition of Czech spiritual culture. Global unity is perceived as a harmonious organismic biological process in which every individual, every society and every nation represents a part of a body which is allowed to optimally develop, where one does not aggress against the other and all are connected through a force of creative energy. The prerequisite for such international unification implies the maximal humanistic cultivation and refinement of national values. The world, because of communication and information revolutions, has shrunk to the extent that without such cooperation a true civilization and indeed the very existence of our planet has become unthinkable. A meaningful, ongoing reduction and final elimination of all war materials and particularly the spirit of militarism must be considered one of the first preconditions for the emergence of a viable civilization.

IE: How can we anticipate such a spiritual upsurge under the present conditions?

JBD: We are living in the most paradoxical era of history. The culture of violence parallels a culture of advancement of human rights. Political misuse of science parallels the application of science in the interest of humankind. Totalitarian centralization and social disintegration parallels the marginal appearance of a new age of human renewal. The negative properties of these paradoxes seem to be superficially much stronger then the positive ones. But in the long course of history a different law of logic reigns. Those who don't believe in the victory of the good -- skeptics, pessimists and shortsighted opportunists, cannot accept the wisdom of the signers of the Charter 77. It represents one of the most awesome social paradoxes, namely, the power of the powerless. The dissidents knew that there was almost no possibility that they would succeed as long as the Communist regime was in power, but they acted despite this knowledge, and this was their strength. It was faith in their own existential purposefulness and passionate concentration on their intent to retain their humanity for the sake of achieving a higher vision that led to the liberation of their people.

IE: But this is a utopian ideal.

JBD: Yes, and it should not intimidate us. Even if the paradox of building and destroying is tragically an ongoing process, skepticism will get us nowhere. We have reached a high development of science and technology but we neglected the human being whose self-alienation and alienation from nature is tragic. The biggest problem is precisely the enormous gap between technical progress and human stagnation. There exist, however, prerequisites for global conditions assuring a beneficial state in many areas of living. To bring into balance this discrepancy is a primary task of our generation. Only in this way will it be possible to prevent the misuse of all that humankind has achieved so far and apply it to the enrichment of the whole world.

IE: Let's talk about the question of spiritual renewal. How can it be achieved in Czechoslovakia?

JBD: This is not something that can be artificially created. It is the result of historical changes, in which human activity plays a decisive role. We witnessed the disintegration of Communist might. The Marxist-Leninist philosophy of dialectical materialism was a sort of secular, orthodox idolatry with all the characteristic features of dogmatic, authoritarian religion. It failed not only because its substance contained fatal errors but above all because it denied individuals their human and social rights as spiritual beings.

IE: The humanization of the person and society is therefore the basis of spiritual renewal?

JBD: The vast majority of the world's population lives today in a state of horrible suffering and vulnerability to cataclysmic events. In the past many, and the majority even today, believe that orthodox religion, philosophy, moralizing, government legislation, formal education or a high standard of living is the answer. But reality points to something else.

IE: How do we understand this?

JBD: Let's look at it from the humanistic-ethical and spiritual point of view. Each historical phase was overcome by another one. In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh was also God and assumed absolute authority and demanded absolute obedience. The Babylonian code of laws, through its 'lex talionis,' its retribution legislation, represented a great step toward social justice. The ethical monotheism of the Prophets of Israel and the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tzu as well as the universalism of Mohammed deepened the spiritual and moral attitudes of the people of that time. And all this was superseded by the law of love preached by Jesus of Nazareth, a law which is unrealized even today.

IE: What is the contribution of humanistic psychology to philosophy?

JBD: Rational, logical thought is the basis of philosophy, which, however, is heavily influenced by the mental and emotional status of the person. Many people are full of anxiety, hostility, and are controlled by their obsessive ideas and deeply rooted superstitions and prejudices. They form their philosophies in accord with their feelings and character structure, which often leads to political authoritarianism, family conflict, destructive interpersonal relations and sometimes to self-destruction and impairment or destruction of others. The task of humanistic psychology is to prevent such processes, to help people to creatively affect their emotional lives and thereby to achieve a free flow of conscious perception. The objective is to become more in touch with reality and develop the ability to express, in their subjectivity, objective values.

IE: You see philosophy by itself as an inadequate medium of awareness. Can you elaborate?

JBD: Philosophy as a basis of thought is important. But the question is which philosophy and what are its true elements. During the last 70 years new philosophical movements such as phenomenology and existentialism have emerged, emphasizing questions of human existence, actuality, personal experience, awareness and the meaning of life. They began with the work of Kierkegaard and continued with a long line of distinguished thinkers including Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, Patocka and others. Existential philosophy led to existential psychology from which emerged humanistic psychology. The latter enables us now to affect qualitatively the lives of many.

IE: Can you be more specific?

JBD: Practical and mostly very bad psychology was always a part of living. Parents, for example, often influence the feelings and behavior of their children by applying crude psychological methods which may even lead to the destruction of the personality. People use punishments such as denial of rights, expropriation of property, torture or killing, sometimes through rewards such as praise, the delegation of authority, provision of sexual advantages, and, of course, by giving money. This crude, mechanistic, universally applied psychology found its scientific and professional expression in the work of Pavlov, Platonov, Watson and Skinner. It became known as behaviorism and is widely used in the former Soviet Union, the United States and most parts of the world. Its great danger lies in producing conditioned reflexes which are then used to control the political, economic and individual behavior of people on a mass scale. It is the most powerful weapon in the hands of dictators and totalitarian manipulators, attempting to subject entire populations to the lowest common denominators and to the status of automatons. This, of course, does not negate the fact that behavioral therapy, under certain circumstances, is an important method.

IE: What then is humanistic psychology?

JBD: It is probably the most important factor which can lead to spiritual renewal. Humanistic psychology is concerned with the emotional and existential being of the whole person. Although it does not neglect research and treatment in the areas of neuroses and psychopathology, its primary emphasis is on creative, loving, highly effective and meaningful development. Its point of departure is the affirmation of the inherent value and potential of each and every individual, their right to enhance spiritual and mental growth and the optimal realization of all human capacities. The basic aim of humanistic psychology is not only the actualization of individual but also of the social-physiological survival prerequisites for the ascent of humanity to a level where living in truth, justice, goodness, beauty, harmony and perpetual improvement become possible. It is not represented by any one closed idea-system but is an evolving, eclectic conglomeration of many sources of knowledge.

IE: And what are some of the new sources of this knowledge?

JBD: Dynamic psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, humanistic philosophy and other scientific and artistic categories contain essentials of this new knowledge. As an example, for Horney, Fromm and Sullivan, one of the origins of the formation of character structure is determined by interpersonal relationships. The existential philosopher Martin Buber teaches that humans must not be seen as an "It" or as objects for utilitarian exploitation but as a "Thou", authentic beings in the process of creation. The "I-Thou," dialogical approach applies not only to the personal but also to the institutional and particularly to the spiritual realm. Sigmund Freud precipitated a great breakthrough in discovering psychoanalysis, which was critically extended by Jung and Adler. Contemporary pioneers of humanistic psychology include Maslow, Rogers, Bugental, May, Reich, Perls, Frankl, Krippner, Buehler, Satir, Ellis, Millgram, Laing and a great number of other workers in the field. Their common denominator is their belief in the maximal improvability of people and society in an intra-, inter-, and transpersonal sense. Elements of this knowledge in the Czech tradition can be found in the work of John A. Comenius, Jan E. Purkine, Thomas G. Masaryk, Augustine Smetana, Rudolph Jedlicka. Jan Patocka, Vaclav Havel and others. It is interesting to note that among the first to affirm the significance of humanistic psychology were two Unitarian Ministers in Prague, Norbert F. Capek and Karel Haspl.

IE: Who were Capek and Haspl?

JBD: Capek and Haspl were the spiritual leaders of the Czechoslovak Unitarian Association. They became aware that from the rich spiritual Czech tradition springs a passionate longing for a free-spirited religion to satisfy the needs of modern, critically thinking and dogmatically unburdened people. Their teachings differed from orthodox churches which preached fear, a pessimistic view of human beings and of the world, a turning away from earthly life, undue emphasis on the after-life and a disintegrative philosophy of dualism. They emphasized an optimistic liberal religious attitude based on joy and fulfillment in the here-and-now and concentrated on the building of the good life and a better society. They believed that serving God means serving people and the highest good. Their religion was natural and not revealed in an orthodox sense. They rejected the messianity of Jesus and considered him a spiritual and ethical genius. They favored the separation of church and state and even included a reference to it in their constitution.

IE: What was their interest in humanistic psychology?

JBD: It was one of their major interests. They were probably the first ministers, perhaps in the world, who produced a synthesis of enlightened religion and modern humanistic psychology. They believed that the major goal and meaning of life is the aspiration to strive continuously for the attainment of higher cultural, spiritual and moral levels of being. Such a task, however, calls for the cooperation of harmonious and creative personalities. Because they combined science and religion, modern psychological education based on the elements of Freud, Jung and Adler became an integral part of their Unitarian vision. In that respect they were true pioneers of religious evolution. Haspl's book Mental Hygiene is a unique affirmation of this synthesis. In 1941, the Nazis arrested Capek and sent him to Dachau where they murdered him by injecting pus into his neck for "medical and scientific purposes." So ended the life of one of the most productive, innovative and for the advancement of enlightened religious movement, important personalities. Capek said: "Let our clean conscience be the highest authority, let all good people be our saints, let the aim of salvation be the liberation of humankind, let all of nature be our temple, and let the reign of love be our ultimate aspiration and ideal for everyday living".

IE: How was the Czechoslovak Unitarian movement created?

JBD: The roots of Czech Unitarianism can be traced to the 11th century. Among the heretics of the time were the-so called Pikhards, Adamites, Arians, Marokans, Socinians, Berghards and Josephite deists. They rejected the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity, the Sacrament, criticized the Bible, denied the infallibility of the Pope, and disbelieved in the revelation of Moses. Particularly the deists, called "the third party," were horribly persecuted. Modern Unitarianism in Czechoslovakia was founded by Dr. Capek in 1923 under the name Society of the Free Fellowship. The movement spread rapidly and thousands of participants filled auditoriums in various locations in Prague. Today's Religious Association of Czechoslovak Unitarians was formed in 1930. Its headquarters are still on Karlova Street #8 in Prague. It became at that time the largest Unitarian congregation in the world. The German and the Communist occupations almost destroyed it.

IE: What role did Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk play in this connection?

JBD: Charlotte Garrigue was the wife of the first president of Czechoslovakia, T. G. Masaryk. She was born in the United States and was a member of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. She certainly influenced Masaryk's thinking, although his deep insights as a professor of philosophy and sociology, and his spiritual and ethical attitude as a realist led him naturally to conclusions close to Unitarianism. It was Masaryk, in a friendly conversation with Capek, who at that time was a Baptist Minister said, "Capek, you are a born Unitarian!" motivating him to take the step in the direction which became his life's mission.

IE: You were a member of the Unitaria in Prague before World War II. How did it affect your life?

JBD: I was at that time a young person trying to clarify my own identity. I recognized in all religions certain humanistic, spiritual and moral values but I rejected their authoritarian, superstitious and irrational content. The conventional concept of God was unacceptable to me. I was at that time what I would call today an ethical atheist. When I listened to Capek and Haspl and engaged in personal conversations with them I started to realize that there is another spiritual dimension. They introduced me to a liberal kind of religious thought and action, an attitude which uses reason in everything and therefore also in religious matters, which respects religious freedom, helps people to know themselves, to develop their harmonious personalities, aims at the unification of all humankind and the improvement of social conditions. Capek and Haspl rejected the belief in biblical miracles and saw God in the creative energies of the universe and therefore also in humans as part of nature. They helped me to find a way to a God concept which has moral meaning, doesn't contradict reason and is realistic. They also introduced me to the art of relaxation and meditation, which helped me to overcome difficult situations in my life.

IE: What was Capek's and Haspl's attitude to the question of women's rights?

JBD: Equality of rights was one of the basic characteristics of Czech Unitarianism. Already in 1927, Capek spoke of a new emancipated woman who is not a helpless toy and marionette in the hands of men. He was fully aware of the subordinate state of women. The old religions were the result of patriarchal thinking and therefore gave women a second class status. He believed that men will continue inventing murderous weapons and will continue killing each other as long as women do not get organized and help create more humane relationships between nations. Just look at the discrepancy in numbers of women in positions of economic and political influence today. In many countries women are still the slaves of men.

IE: Isn't the word slave a bit strong?

JBD: The subjugation of women is often invisible. If a whole society agrees with the patriarchal system, where the woman is only an appendage of men, a work and sex object, and a procreation apparatus, such a state is considered normal and desirable and its dehumanizing aspects are removed from the consciousness of the population. Particularly in theocratic countries, many women live in quiet desperation and denial, brutally forced to accept their fate. Even in today's Czechoslovakia there are emerging voices calling for women's liberation. The idea of women's rights must, however, penetrate into the souls and hearts of women and men first.

IE: Forrester Church defines religion as: "..our human response to the dual reality of being born and having to die." Unitarianism draws on the teachings of many religions. Is it possible for atheists, agnostics and theists to co-exist in the framework of one religion?

JBD: This is first of all a question of semantics. If we understand under 'religion' formal clericalism, dogmas, rituals and bigotry, then religious peace can hardly be attained. I see three modes of thought: 1. pictorial, which comprehends only the surface; 2. conceptual, which is limited by our fixed syntactic verbal patterns; and 3. substantive, which is transverbal and perceives phenomena in the substance of their being. If we understand religion as the consecration of one's life to the service of the highest good, which in religious terminology means living in the context of God, and in the secular sense means living in the context of a universal ideal, then such spiritual unification may be possible. When the highest good and the word God are seen in the substantive mode they are identical and one can say that ethical atheism and naturalistic, rational theism are the same. The real problem to overcome is idolatry (excluding considerations of the value of myths). Idols are thoughts and objects which are believed to be real and true, but in actuality are nonexistent or exist in a different form. Because such idolatry is always obsessive and an expression of unreality, its destructiveness is enormous. The search for truth in itself is a dangerous task and often a life and death struggle. The philosophy of dialectical materialism was such a form of idolatry, which led to a general confusion and left a terrible spiritual emptiness in the minds of its true believers.

IE: But most people didn't believe in it.

JBD: In the former Soviet Union, the majority probably believed in it. Communist brainwashing and propaganda were very effective. In Czechoslovakia the situation was different. After the war, the Soviets were welcomed as liberators and many succumbed to the temptation to believe in their utopian ideology, particularly when such was backed by the all-pervasive might of a police state. Those who collaborated were rewarded, and those who became dissidents suffered severe discrimination and brutal persecution. I have a textbook of Marxist philosophy used in 1979 in Czechoslovak colleges. It contains 606 pages of "scientific" theses, which are quite convincing if you don't have anything to compare them with, and particularly if their parroting will get you an academic degree and assure a better future for you under the dictatorship. But the vast majority of Czech students were perceptive and did not believe in what they had to profess. That's why their spirit of freedom and truth propelled them to play such a key role in bringing Communism to its knees.

IE: But since many of them reject the word 'religion', how can the Unitaria move in that direction?

JBD: I spoke with hundreds of students. Indeed, most of them understand religion as simply clerical authoritarianism and nonsense. Orthodox churches are now making strenuous efforts to recruit new converts but have difficulties especially among the young intelligentsia. Also the wider strata of the population have been influenced by antireligious activity under the Communists and see religion in a more hostile way than during the first Republic. Some join religious groups for sincere reasons, others for hypocritical and opportunistic reasons, but the majority remain skeptical, expediency oriented, confused and without a deeper spiritual vision. For the Unitarians, however, this should not be a problem. During the most successful time in the history of the Czech Unitaria under the leadership of Capek and Haspl, a significant statistical survey revealed that although only 5.8% of the Czech population were non-religious, 54.2% of Unitarians came from their ranks. Freedom alone is not necessarily an enduring value. Human existence is unbearable if it is not humanely and transcendentally purposeful. If we are living among people whose relationship toward us, and ours toward them is not filled with love, life becomes worthless even under the most favorable economic conditions. The meaning of life is predicated on the spiritual humanization of people. A humanistic, "rational-emotive" religion with a philosophically plausible, reality oriented God-concept, and a rich, personally meaningful and socially redeeming content would have a tremendous appeal to sophisticated and intelligent young people. Through diplomatically sensitive ecumenical cooperation, a climate of religious tolerance may be created that could release and activate the elemental humanistic and spiritual potentialities deeply harbored in the Czech and Moravian soul. This dynamic would not only produce the necessary enthusiasm of the young but could have a far reaching general effect. The Prague Unitaria could become an important inspirational and cultural center of such activity.

IE: The last question. What is the extent of the lectures and seminar series "Living In Truth" that you conduct in New York City?

JBD: Through the cooperation and courtesy of The Unitarian Church of All Souls, which provided its chapel, the Friends of the Czechoslovak Unitaria and the Church of Humanism sponsored 17 elementary seminars dealing with Unitarianism and humanistic philosophy and psychology. A wide range of relevant topics was discussed including: "Spiritual Renewal in Liberated Czechoslovakia;" "Masaryk's and Fromm's Concepts of Creative Love;" "Vaclav Havel's Idea of 'The Power of the Powerless;'" "Capek's and Haspl's Legacy and Their Striving for Religious Freedom and Human Development;" "Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis." These were designed to familiarize the participants with glimpses into the treasure house of Czech Unitarian and spiritual culture. General topics of a personally meaningful nature, but from a Unitarian humanistic angle included: "Rogers' and Buber's Philosophy and Psychology of the Great Existential Dialogue;" "On Human Functionality;" "A Humanist Concept of God;" "Developing Intuition and Awareness;" "The Art of Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts;" and "Bringing More Love and Joy Into Your Life." The response was heartening and there is great interest in continuing these lectures and seminars.

===================================================================== ======== Rev. Joseph Ben-David is the founder and Senior Minister of the New York based Church of Humanism. He was born in Prague, where he was an active member of the Unitaria already in 1937. During the Nazi occupation, he emigrated to Palestine and eventually to the United states, where he became the President of the Humanist Society of Greater New York. As a speaker and humanist counselor he has given over 2.000 lectures and workshops. In 1979, when Vaclav Havel and other activists of the Charter 77 were sentenced to many years in prison, the Church of Humanism bestowed on them its 1979 Humanist of the Year Award.

Ms. Ivana Edwards was born in Prague, grew up in Canada and lives in New York. She is a journalist and her articles and essays appear in; The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, The World Monitor, the Massachusetts Review and other publications.

Copyright c 1992 by Joseph Ben-David and Ivana Edwards For reprints and permission to reprint write to: Rev. Joseph Ben-David and Ivana Edwards, 250 West 85 St. #10E, New York, NY 10024-3220. Tel. (212) 877-5662